The eyes of the world were on Celebrity Millennium, the first big cruise ship to sail again in the Caribbean since the pandemic shut down the industry in March 2020.
Leaving from St. Maarten, the ship was sailing with only 600 or so passengers onboard, and every adult and crew member was fully vaccinated for our roundtrip voyage to Barbados, Aruba and Curacao.
The milestone cruise went off without a hitch for five festive days of live music and entertainment, gourmet food, laughs, trivia quizzes and a chance to meet new friends.
And then, during a routine required COVID test (needed before passengers could return to the United States), two asymptomatic guests came up positive for the virus.
But instead of this turning into a story that garnered 24/7 headlines, it demonstrated that the protocols and safety measures cruise lines had spent months developing, testing and putting into place did exactly what they were supposed to do: They kept cruisers safe and healthy and allowed passengers to continue to enjoy a fantastic cruise.
Before the point when the captain announced that two passengers sharing the same cabin had tested positive – we had just finished a sun-filled day in Curacao – and though we’ve been on many cruises, this one just felt special.
The moment I stepped on board, I noticed the energy.
There was a certain buzz, an elation and joy both among the passengers and the crew members who have been on the sidelines for most of the prior 15 months.
Celebrity became the first major line to return to the Caribbean, the world’s most-popular cruise destination. The ship can carry more than 2,100 passengers, so we were sailing at about 30 percent capacity, meaning there was loads of free space — and plenty of poolside loungers to go around.
Cruisers sailed with the comfort and peace of mind that we were safe. So, we quickly shed masks once on the ship (crew are required to wear masks the whole time, though), and the whole experience started to feel “normal.”
We began to interact with strangers, see smiles, shake hands and socialise as we sailed and took part in all the activities.
Many I chatted with spoke of multiple cruise cancellations they lamented during the past years and how surreal it felt to be back onboard a ship.
The mood was vibrant, the camaraderie warm, the energy high. It was smooth sailing. And what was fascinating and promising is that didn’t change after the revelation of the positive cases.
Celebrity acted swiftly. Cruisers and staffers who had been deemed close contacts to the infected pair were isolated in their rooms until they were tested. It was unfortunate, but not unexpected that this could happen. Even vaccinated people can test positive for the virus.
I was immediately struck with the thought that negative media coverage of this news could be a huge setback once again for cruising. However, I wasn’t afraid there would be an outbreak onboard.
Neither were the rest of the passengers, as it turns out. The thing is, the cruise carried on as normal for everyone except the two dozen or so close contacts — who ultimately tested negative and were able to leave their cabins after about 13 hours (basically an overnight stay).
Celebrity was decisive and fully transparent about what was going on as the rest of the cruisers proceeded to get tested (again, part of the normal process in place) and were all negative for COVID. When the captain announced on our final evening that no additional cases were found onboard, passengers clapped, then went on with their day.
While it was awful for the two guests who tested positive and couldn’t enjoy the final two days of their cruise, the sailing carried on for all others with no disruption. The casino and bars were full. The shows carried on and all venues remained open.
It shows that a fully vaccinated cruise is the best way to go to safely build back confidence for passengers, and it also demonstrates that these protocols can work well in helping us live with the virus as we aim to resume a normal life that includes travel and cruise vacations.